Eyes on the Board of Education: November 19, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik

”The movement is a testament to the fact that courage is contagious.”  Opal Tometi, Black Lives Matter Organizer

The Board of Education has issued a brief agenda this month. APPS members again urge the Board to listen to teachers and parents, particularly in its compliance with the Hite administration on its proposed reopening plan. The Hite administration continues to implement corporate education practices, even more so behind the Covid Curtain.

As Covid cases surge in Philadelphia,  we see again the racial inequities inherent in our society. Unemployment, sickness and death have devastated Black and Brown communities. District leadership must be held accountable for decisions that affect those communities. Educators know that in-person learning works best for students, but the health and safety of students and staff are not negotiable. 

 At the November Joint Committee Meeting, District Chief of Staff Alicia Prince’s presentation of  the  “Return to Learning Implementation Pathway Update”  left listeners with more questions than answers. The Hite administration’s hybrid plan was backed at that time by both City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley and by physicians from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s  Policy Lab. But subsequent  pushback by parents, school staff, and community members forced Dr. Hite to cancel this plan and maintain Virtual Learning for the foreseeable future.  

Farley and the CHOP physicians reversed course in the face of rapidly rising Covid cases.  Why are we writing about this in this edition of Eyes when there is no Agenda Item or  Presentation about it on the official agenda?  Over the years, APPS members have attended and reported on meetings for Transformation Schools, Redesign Schools,  Focus Schools, Priority Schools, and more recently,  the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR). We have seen how the top-down approach of this administration excludes any genuine parent and staff engagement in decision-making about their school communities. Perfunctory outreach and distribution of surveys are not substitutes for actually talking with and listening to parents. 

In normal times, teachers and staff inhabit aging buildings every day. They know the level of disrepair, particularly in ventilation systems. It should not take a tsunami of protest for them to be heard. The District does not need to spend precious dollars on glossy plans developed by multinational companies with little knowledge or understanding of the District’s needs.  (See Item 4, Contract with Accenture,  October 22, 2020  Eyes on the Board).

Philadelphians had high hopes when the School Reform Commission was abolished and the District returned to local control. At the August 2018 Board meeting, Capital Programs Contract Modification summaries were posted, thus allowing the public access to more details about Agenda Items. Unfortunately, that practice began and ended then.  Item descriptions provide less information each month, causing the public to wonder what happened to the new Board’s promises of more transparency and accountability.This month,  examples of this can be found in  Item 7, Capital Award for Ludlow and Lea Schools, Robert Michaels & Associates, LLC and Murphy Quigley Company, Inc. and Item 2 Acceptance of Donation from the Friends of Chester Arthur – Berm Resurfacing Project.

Opal Tometi, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter movement (launched in 2013 in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin), tells us that courage is contagious. We need District leadership to show more courage and to include stakeholders in true decision-making. The Board must show more support for teachers, principals, and  staff; to respond to questions asked at all Action and Committee Board meetings. We need leaders who will question District leadership, not simply rubber-stamp their requests.

What if…

…the Board flipped the script and asked for a School of the Month to be highlighted ? Despite the tremendous difficulties of virtual schooling there are many schools navigating in innovative ways. Many of us miss our treasured monthly musical student presentations. The Board should celebrate the creative ways in which school staff are teaching and students are learning. 

December Board of Education Meetings

  • Action Meeting:  Thursday December 10 at 5 PM. 
  • Joint Committee Meeting:  Thursday, December 3 at 4 PM. 
  • Check the Board website for updated information on how to sign up to testify.

Action Items of Note

Board Releases Selective Information on Official Items

Item 7: Capital Award for Ludlow and Lea Schools – Robert Michaels & Associates, LLC and Murphy Quigley Company, Inc. ($2,970,777)

Description:The Office of Capital Programs has identified various capital projects at multiple school locations based on the capital budget call and the facilities assessment report.  The projects recommended for contract awards were identified in the approved FY21 capital budget. The projects were publicly advertised and the lowest responsible bidder is recommended for contract award. The District design, construction, and project management teams have developed a site specific construction phasing plan in collaboration with principals and contractors for the site improvements. This plan ensures adequate time and sufficient swing space has been identified for the safety of students and staff. The work will be monitored daily by an inspector, project manager and construction manager to ensure the contractors meet the established budget and schedule. This work is in support of the Operations Division goal of providing a safe and healthy learning environment for all students.

APPS Analysis:The District continues to withhold information from Agenda Items. The only time Capital Programs Contract Modification Summaries were posted was at the August 2018 Board meeting. This practice leaves the public in the dark. Releasing incomplete information, especially when not acknowledging that there is more information, is dishonest practice and reflects an attitude that government officials should decide what their constituents should  or should not know. It also means that members of the public cannot make fully informed comments. If this District leadership wanted to truly engage the public,  then descriptions would be complete. Few details are provided as to what Capital Projects require an additional $2 million dollar infusion. The Capital Programs website lists schools undergoing Major Renovation, Exterior Renovation, and Site Improvement. There is no listing for either Lea or Ludlow.

Action Item 2: Acceptance of Donation from the Friends of Chester Arthur, Berm Resurfacing Project, Value of donation for an amount up to:  $30,000

Description: The school yard at Chester A. Arthur School was renovated four years ago which included a synthetic grass stepped berm that has been heavily used in the subsequent years by both the school and the community. The grass material is starting to separate at the seams and holes are forming, exposing the substructure. School Leadership and The Friends of Chester Arthur School Community Organization collaboratively decided to build concrete steps over the current substructure and provide a wood decking material for the steps to restore the berm.  The Friends of Chester Arthur fundraised and sought grants to fund the restoration of the berm, so it can be safely used for many years for both the community and as an outdoor learning feature for the school.  Part of the community organization’s process involved meeting with four different contractors to review possible solutions for repairing the berm. After funds were secured, the Friends of Chester Arthur engaged MJ Settelen Inc., which will enter into a License and Right of Entry and will complete the installation.

APPS Analysis:  This description again demonstrates the Board’s withholding relevant information.  Item 2 was on the list of Items to be discussed at the November Committee meeting. The Committee agenda did not include the price of the donation, and since the Board did not actually discuss it, no one asked why. The Item states:  “Part of the community organization’s process involved meeting with four different contractors to review possible solutions for repairing the berm.” The Board must explain who gave non-District employees permission to negotiate with and hire contractors to do work on District property. The Board must also address the glaring equity issues raised here. One school’s “Friends of” group can raise $30,000 for new outside decking (Merriam Webster defines berm as “a narrow shelf, path, or ledge typically at the bottom of a slope; also: a mound or wall of earth or sand”). This while students at other schools must deal with unabated asbestos and lead issues.